I Found Out I Was Autistic at 22

Written by Madeleine Grace

The Diagnosis

“You have Autism Spectrum Disorder,” the psychologist says to me while leaning over the table to hand me my 12-page diagnosis. 

I try to speak, but nothing comes out. There aren’t any words; just a rush of relief that floods through every part of me. 

My journey to getting diagnosed started with questions. I was a Uni student whose parents had just moved overseas, and in their absence I began to notice things about myself that I hadn’t picked up on before. I was extremely sensitive to lights, sounds, and textures. I found myself increasingly anxious in social settings, and was always overwhelmed. I had an unexplainable sense that I wasn’t normal, and that I had to try really hard to cover that up around others.

I started my research by looking into sensory sensitivities. The stories I found of people who experienced the same issues I did quickly led me to something more: Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

At first I couldn’t see it in myself. Autism is something only boys have, I thought. But the more I read about ASD and the way it affects girls, the more it seemed like this could be what made me tick so differently from the people around me. After researching, reflecting, and sitting on it for eight months, I finally decided to book an appointment with a clinical psychologist to get assessed. 

Reading through the report, the patterns in my life started to make sense—my struggles making friends, difficulties coping with change, the intense and unique interests that swallowed up my attention for weeks . . . It felt good to find answers. To be able to explain to my friends and family how Autism affects me is such a relief.

So what is Autism?

Autism is a neurological condition some people are born with. Having ASD means your brain is wired differently, and this can manifest in (affect) various areas of your life–including your emotions, the physical sensations you get, the way you see the world, and how you interact with others. 

When we hear the words “Autism Spectrum”, we may picture a linear line from “not autistic” to “very autistic”. But researchers now agree that’s not how it works. The spectrum is actually more like a circle—picture a colour wheel—with each pie-shaped sliver representing a different autistic trait that some have and others don’t. I, for example, don’t have a problem with verbal communication or physical mobility, but I struggle with processing emotions and sensory input.

There’s a misconception that Autism is more common in boys, and the reason why many girls go undiagnosed for so long is because we’re more accustomed to hiding our autistic traits by “masking”. Masking is when a person covers up their differences and tries to blend in by copying the behaviour of the people around them.

When I was a teenager, I began to notice that there were lots of situations that I didn’t understand. I took people very literally, and I struggled to read people’s tone, so things like sarcasm, jokes and cultural nuance went over my head. I constantly found myself drawing blanks in conversations where I couldn’t keep up with what was being said and what everyone meant.

I hated feeling like the odd one out, so I started reading lots of how-to articles about socialising. I asked my parents lots of questions before every event; what would be expected of me, whether I should give a hug or a handshake, if it was appropriate to ask certain questions, and so on. I rehearsed what to say on phone calls, and I made a list of common conversation topics to practise. Basically, I did everything I could to cover up my challenges and make it look like I was “normal”.

But on the inside, the struggle continued. I had a lot of trouble understanding and regulating my emotions, which meant that sometimes I would come across as cold and unfeeling, and other times I would be overly upset about something without knowing why. 

Autism also affected (and still does) the way I process sensory information. For example, loud and unexpected noises are physically painful for me, and I have to use noise-cancelling headphones to block them out. Other times, I have trouble working out who’s speaking and what they’re saying (which is especially challenging on Zoom calls and online lectures!). I also have a very low register for tactile feedback, meaning it takes a lot of pressure for me to feel something on my skin. This means I can injure myself without really noticing. It also means I do things like rocking my body, flapping my hands, and using weighted blankets to feel grounded in a space. 

Telling friends and family about my diagnosis was difficult because for the most part, I’ve always hidden the things I struggle with. I’ve squashed my impulses to rock back and forth in public. I’ve memorised questions to ask and tried my best to make eye contact and learn to read tone. 

To many of my friends, my diagnosis came as a surprise because they didn’t know Autism well. Many of them understood ASD the same way I once did, the way Autistic people are (poorly) represented in TV shows or movies. Once my friends learned more about Autism, they were able to recognise its impact and support me better. 

Today is Autism Awareness Day, and in honour of that I’d love to share with you three ways that you can love your Autistic friends.

Three ways you can support your Autistic friends

1. Be our friend and let us be ourselves.

We probably all know someone who is on the spectrum. Before I was diagnosed, I knew a few people at school and church who were different and quirky. Sometimes it was because they wouldn’t make eye contact. Other times, I noticed that they talked about really specific interests long after I’d tuned out. And the sad part? I didn’t know that I was one of them. 

Although I don’t like to admit it, I didn’t always make the effort to include people who were different. Since my own diagnosis, however, I’ve become more in tune with what it means to be a good friend to others, and am so much more grateful to my own friends who show patience and grace even when they don’t fully understand me.

I’m lucky to have found friends around whom I don’t need to pretend. They accept me as I am, whether I’m chattering away about my latest niche interest or flapping my hands when I’m excited or overwhelmed. You can love your Autistic friends well by letting them be themselves.

2. Ask questions, and take the time to listen.

I feel loved by people when they ask me questions. It means they want to hear what’s on my mind or in my heart, and that makes me feel valued. 

Some people have said they feel awkward asking me about my Autism, because it seems too personal or taboo. But honestly? I’d rather they ask me, because there’s so much more to be gained from trying to learn and understand than from pretending we’re the same. 

Don’t be afraid to ask us questions. (And trust me, we’ll have plenty of questions to ask you too!)

3. Try seeing the world through our eyes.

Did you know that songs have colours, and lights make noise? Have you ever felt an emotion so strongly that you can’t help but just skip and wave your arms around your head?

Autistic people experience the world differently. Our brains process sensory information in ways that can be both beautiful and also really challenging.  

A few years ago, my friends didn’t understand why I would get anxious on trips to the shopping mall. When they asked, I tried to explain the experience for me; how the different coloured tiles on the floor felt uneven, how the speaker system was deafening and the lights were so bright; I was overwhelmed by the smells from the food court and felt trapped in a crowd. Basically, I was overstimulated. 

Once my friends understood that, we thought of better ways to hang out together. When we catch up for coffee, they know that I like to sit in the corner away from the coffee grinder noise and bathroom queues. They take off their sunglasses so I can read their facial expressions, and they wait patiently when a noise interrupts our conversation and I have to catch my breath. 

Having friends who make an effort to understand how I experience the world has made all the difference to me.

We’re all part of the same body

Having Autism isn’t exactly easy, because the world is set up for people who experience things differently to me. And that’s why awareness is so important. With awareness comes understanding, and with understanding, empathy. 

On this Autism Acceptance Day, I hope everyone reading this knows these two things:

Firstly, that we are all created and loved by God (Psalm 139:13), no matter what condition we may have or how we see the world.

Secondly, we all have a unique role to play in God’s work, and we’re all needed as part of His body (1 Corinthians 12:18-20). 

Would I change being autistic? Not at all. It’s part of who I am, and who God made me. I’m learning to love the bits and pieces that make up who I am.

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